Tax Woes For County May Grow

Ecker Won't Rule Out Local Increases Inbudget

April 15, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

Tax-weary residents may find themselves victims of a double whammy Monday when County Executive Charles I. Ecker presents his fiscal 1993operating budget to the County Council.

Ecker says he cannot ruleout higher local taxes even though the General Assembly increased a variety of state taxes last week.

"Hopefully, we won't have to do it on the county level, too," Ecker said.

Individuals with incomes of $100,000 or more, and coupleswith combined incomes of $150,000 or more have already been hit by the state increases. They will be put into a new state income tax bracket for the next three years.

The amount returned to the county from the new bracket in the form of so-called piggyback income taxes --the percentage of state income taxes collected for local use -- is estimated to be $847,000 for fiscal 1993, said county Budget Director Raymond S. Wacks. In addition, the county would receive a one-time only windfall of about $396,000 because the tax is retroactive to Jan. 1, Wacks said.

The new tax bracket could be only the beginning. The General Assembly also authorized counties to raise all piggyback taxes to 60 percent. Howard County has a 50 percent piggyback tax.

Raising the tax to 60 percent would generate another $15.4 million, Wacks said. In addition, a one-time windfall of $6.7 million would accrue because the tax, if imposed, would be retroactive to Jan. 1, Wackssaid.

Ecker said he expects pressure two ways -- to keep the piggyback tax at 50 percent and to increase it to the maximum amount.

Pressure to increase the tax could come primarily from teachers and county employees. Neither received raises last year. County employees actually suffered a pay decrease as a result of an unpaid five-day furlough.

Ecker said he doesn't want employees to go two years without some kind of pay raise.

"Our employees have been tremendous," he said. "There has been very little grumbling and no lawsuits -- as in some other places. But they are apprehensive and worried. I don't want to go into a third year of revising the budget (downward). I don't want to put our employees through that again."

A 1 percent pay increase would amount to about $700,000 for county employees and $1 million for Board of Education employees. Providing even a 1 percent raise may not be easy.

In March, department heads asked Ecker for a $277 million operating budget that included no new programs or salaryincreases. Even so, the request was $14 million more than an advisory committee told Ecker the county could safely afford. The picture improved only slightly after the legislature voted new taxes last week.

"We were expecting the worse, and it didn't quite happen," Ecker said. Some education money was restored -- $4.6 million -- and the county should receive $6.1 million for road construction. That's the good news.

The bad news is that if the state is unable to provide that aid, there will be no place for the county to cut apart from education and roads.

"One of my biggest fears is that the state estimate of revenues is very optimistic," Ecker said. "They may be back as early as this summer (with cuts). Hopefully, we're going to take that into account. I want to make a reduction as remote as possible. I'm going to try to restructure our budget so we won't have to reduce it, but I can't guarantee we won't reduce it."

Ecker and his staff have until tomorrow to prepare the proposed fiscal 1993 operating budgetfor submission to the County Council. County offices will be closed Friday. In all likelihood, Ecker will present the council a summary budget Monday, with details to follow a couple of days later.

Meanwhile, the county received another small boost from Annapolis last week. An $8.2 million reduction expected locally as part of a $141 million statewide cut requested by Gov. William Donald Schaefer in December was less than anticipated.

The Howard County portion of the amount Schaefer wanted cut was reduced to $2.9 million. Ecker had slashed$4 million from the county budget in January, including $2.5 millionin education money, on the presumption that the legislature would give the governor at least 50 percent of what he asked for.

The state cut is "much less than expected," school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said Monday. "We're hoping to get back a portion" for fiscal 1992, which ends June 30.

Ecker said he would restore $600,000 to the fiscal 1992 education budget.

HOW LEGISLATORS VOTED ON TAX BILLS

The Senate and House of Delegates each approved a package of three tax bills in a special legislative session Friday night. Here is a synopsis of each bill and how the senators and delegates voted.

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